“Who wants to work with the young ones, the first-graders?” Ms. Coleman asked. I raised my hand slowly, thinking I might be a better tutor to children who are around my niece’s and nephew’s ages. “Okay, you’ll be working in Mr. Durnell’s and Ms. Gladys’ classroom.” While I was a bit anxious at first, especially as we were walking over to the school to pick up the kids and bring them to the center, I soon found they were much like my sister’s and brother’s kids around that age: restless after a long day of school, eager to play instead of doing their homework and looking for ways to get attention from the adults in the room.
I was at the Mercy Neighborhood Center in the Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood of Philadelphia, a place that, like many neighborhoods in Rustbelt cities across the U.S., has seen better days. There, only 3 out of 5 people on average have a high school diploma. About 1 in 5 adults want to work but can’t find a job and nearly 1 in 3 people live below the federal poverty level.
One bright spot of the Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood, however, is the Mercy Center, one of several non-profits where nine DePaul students and I volunteered over spring break this year. Its beginnings can be traced back 35 years to the involvement of the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic women’s congregation that places particular emphasis on social justice issues.
Over the years the Sisters founded a nonprofit organization, obtained public and private grants, and converted an old warehouse into a state-of-the-art community center. Today the center provides childcare, adult day care, and adult education and wellness programs to the working poor who live in this area of North Philadelphia.
Our group was one of seven from DePaul participating in the spring Vincentians-in-Action (VIA) Service Immersion trips. I was the staff mentor who paid for the gas and tolls, kept copies of all receipts, and took turns driving with our student leader Tom. Of course there were other duties involved, but Tom was more than ready—and prepared—to lead our group.
All VIA student leaders spend at least one quarter studying the philosophy that sustains these trips as well as topics on leadership and social change. Tom often reminded us that “service without reflection is just work” and made sure we spent time in the evenings to reflect on our day’s experiences.
Because reflection is such an important part of the learning that goes on at DePaul– and learning in general, of course–I’d like to offer a brief reflection on something I observed during our trip, framed by the three values of the Vincentians-in-Action model: Awareness, Dialogue, and Solidarity.
Being aware essentially means not putting on blinders to suffering; it means being able to observe the social reality of people who are less fortunate than you—financially, physically, emotionally, etc.
While our group was waiting to checkout at a Pathmark grocery in North Philadelphia, I noticed the small family in front of us had used the last of their food stamps on the food they were buying, but they still owed about $6 and change. Small baby in tow, the father was frantically going through the items the clerk had just rung up, trying to figure out what tipped the scales.
Watching this mini-crisis unfold, I considered covering the balance with my personal credit card. But in the end I kept quiet, afraid that by paying the balance I might add insult to the family’s injury. They ended up spending their last six dollars and change and left in a fluster. At that point I began wondering if I had made the right decision.
A day or two later I discussed this situation with Rev. Bill Algretto, C.M., who co-directs the St. Vincent DePaul Center—the place we were staying at—with Sister Pat Evanick, D.C. He mentioned that if he were to have been there, he would have simply asked the couple if it was okay if he cover the six dollars.
By asking the couple first instead of just intervening without any prior conversation, Bill’s approach acknowledges the dignity of the couple and their right to refusal, for whatever reason. I was dumbfounded that I didn’t even consider dialog as a possibility.
Let’s say that instead of doing nothing, I had actually offered to help the couple in the grocery store, following Bill’s approach. Whether they would have accepted the help or not, my offering would have been a gesture of solidarity—an action that suggests a shared responsibility for the hardship their family was experiencing.
Regardless of whether you subscribe to a Vincentian way of thinking (and being!), service learning experiences can create change in ourselves–and in our communities–but likely only to the extent that we reflect on and make meaning from them.
For more information on VIA Service Immersion, visit the Vincentian Community Service Office website. You can also view a short video profile below.